THE BOY TOOK FOREVER TO UNPACK from his trip to China. He was changed. Less boy, more—something. But really, despite his trenchant insights into the plight of the country’s migrant workers and his refusal to wear sweatshop-made T-shirts from Guangdong Province, it was the girl from Finland who had altered his cellular structure, cracked him open like geothermal faults cleave the earth, creating deep fissures. And it was this deeply fissured self that stepped off China Eastern Airlines Flight 582 at YVR and into the arms of his younger sister while his parents stood by with their goofy grins and waited their turns.
THEY HAD HELD HANDS in Suzhou and talked about the fear of death—her favourite topic—while their rickshaw driver executed manoeuvres the boy had previously thought only possible through CGI. The rickshaw was an alarming pink, with ads for American Apparel on both sides. The driver’s arms and legs were as thin as the spokes of his bicycle wheels; the sidewalks and streets bright and cloudy with people, bikes, scooters, cars and buses; the sky that day clear; the ceaseless honking and tooting by then just white noise. There were no birds.
“What else is there?” the girl had asked in a way that implied she didn’t expect an answer.
“What else is it that forces us out of bed in the morning and into the world?”
He had tried to be interested in the fear of death, he really had, but he was one of those preternaturally cheerful boys who called beers “brewskis” and added an “o” to the names of the guys with whom he played lacrosse—Mark-O, Winston-O, Omar-O. His cup back then was not half-full or half-empty depending on your point of view, it generally runneth over. Death for the boy was a character in a Bizarro comic, a joker with a scythe who had to ring the doorbell like everyone else.
She was a mathematician, a few years older than him, but so what? The boy had just finished reading a short book on infinity his father gave him for his birthday, and he quoted from it to impress her, passing off the author’s thoughts on Zeno’s paradoxes as his own. He was far from stupid. At eighteen, he was already one year into a degree in international relations, with a minor in economics. But he just wasn’t the kind of boy who thought about death a whole lot.
The girl was what she called “post-corporeal”—not frigid, just uninterested in the body. The boy, on the other hand—the boy was all about the body. He and Niko Pachis had spent the bulk of grade eight creating an infinite list of words for penis. By grade nine, they were joking in Yoda-speak: “There is no talk, only do!” Even as he listened to the girl, thrilling to her voice, the boy’s extremities still recalled the Israeli teenager at the hostel in Chengdu, how her mouth had been stinky-sweet from the bowl of garlicky pork noodles she’d eaten, how the indents right above her ass had been the exact size of the tips of his middle fingers. (If asked her name, or with which hand she’d held her chopsticks, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.) What he had was a talent for body memory—muscle memory, his piano teacher called it.
“It’s just a vessel,” the girl from Helsinki said one night, leaning against a darkened store-front window, all the while lightly tracing his outline with her thumbs from the hips up, ending at his temples. Nearby, a toddler in a quilted jacket squatted over the curb, waving a burning sparkler while his grandmother clapped and clapped her hands.
THEY'D MET during a comedy night at the ANZA Club in Beijing. A guy from Adelaide had dragged him there. First up was a crazy Brit who doused the audience with spittle as he raged hilarious obscenities into the microphone. The Maori stand-up was another kind of creep altogether. His sensitive PC routine repulsed the boy; the guy’s earnestness and nest of wacky curls had to be a put-on to get laid, or, as the vulgar Manchester comic put it, “make bird kebabs.”
The girl stood by the bar, not drinking, her hands shoved into the pockets of an old-lady smock thing. As he paid for his beer, she sighed and said, “They’re just afraid, but they don’t know it yet.”
The boy wondered what he would call the colour of her hair if ever asked to describe it. “Afraid of what?” he asked.
“Of death, of course! That’s why they’re trying so hard to be funny.”
FOR A GIRL who wasn’t about bodily pleasure, she did like to eat. The boy could barely keep up. Maybe it was a hardy Finn thing? On their final evening together, in a Chinese-Muslim restaurant—the rats rustling along the canal walls outside—she had chewed some spicy mutton and then taken it out of her mouth and fed it to him as if he were a newborn bird or an Inuit grandmother.
Despite her preoccupation with death, there wasn’t anything dark about the girl, nothing remotely Goth. She was pale, yes, and had one corkscrew eyebrow hair longer and darker than the rest, but in her apricot sweaters and pressed jeans and white Keds, she looked like someone out of a toothpaste ad.
“As I get older, I don’t feel the need to adorn myself anymore,” she’d told him, apropos of nothing. She was all of what? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? Her own trip to China wasn’t about personal exploration, but to attend a conference on applied mathematics for people in the telecommunications industry. She had a few days of vacation saved up and stayed on after the conference. The Chinese, she said, had invented so many ways of dying that the air tasted of the fear of death. You could practically lick it.
“I love your circuitry, I really do,” she’d told the boy as she said goodbye, touching her forehead to his. “But you have no sense of your own mortality.”
At this point an observer waiting for the elevator beside them in the colonial-looking Nanlin Hotel—the vast lobby stretching out behind them, cigarette butts decorating the many freestanding ashtrays, a young woman in a green satin gown playing “Tiny Dancer” on the grand piano—might think, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, he’s a boy. He’s supposed to feel immortal!”
There was a sign in the elevator at the Nanlin: “If you meet the emergency condition dial 011.” After they parted, the boy looked at his face in the bathroom mirror of his guest room and thought of the sign.
THE LAST THING the boy removed from his backpack at home was a small ginkgo leaf. The girl had found it on the path leading into the Confucian temple in Suzhou. He’d folded a train ticket around it and, rather miraculously, the leaf hadn’t crumbled to nothing.
The ticket was for the fast train from Beijing to Suzhou, where the girl decided to go on a whim after hearing it described as “the Venice of China.” Station after station of massive, gleaming platforms punctuated their southward journey. All the train stations were bigger than the one back home in the boy’s famed West-Coast city. There, the station doubled as a bus depot and ad-hoc homeless shelter. Here, all these millions (billions?) of people with briefcases and backpacks and shopping bags mounted and dismounted a fast train in cities that were nothing but pinpricks on a world map. Billions of people working, shopping, eating, pissing and fucking in places no one the boy knew would ever have heard of.
Thinking about all this had accordioned his brain, like a map unfolded and then refolded poorly. Maybe that was what contemplating death felt like—jangly, ungraspable, yet exhilarating?
Can a boy live well with a brain folded poorly?
BUSINESS TOOK HIS mother to Sweden. She was in the furniture trade by way of the forestry industry. And what was Helsinki but a hop, skip and a jump (or yump!) from Stockholm? The girl’s name was Katja. The boy’s mother had discovered it from overhearing her son mutter in his sleep. That, and from the letter she found, sealed but inexpertly hidden, with the girl’s name and address c/o Nokia House, just outside of Helsinki. Unlike a sitcom mom, she didn’t reseal and rehide the letter after steaming it open and comically fretting for an entire episode about whether to confront her son or not. She just threw it away. Afterward, he evidently found better hiding places.
She found it odd that he was writing letters, especially to someone who worked in the telecommunications business. His iPhone lay idle on top of a stack of equally neglected textbooks: Diplomacy in the Pearson Era, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Kissinger’s On China and Plato’s Laws.
By then, though, she found much about her son odd, even unsettling. He wasn’t going to classes, had quit his lacrosse team and was behaving like some sort of ascetic. He did his own laundry (“Call 911!” his sister yelled, waving her arms in mock distress, the first time she saw him carrying a hamper full of neatly folded clothes), made his own frugal meals and, when he thought he was alone in the house, sat at the piano playing Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” over and over, accompanying himself with his reedy tenor.
“He’s adorable,” a co-worker had assured her, a woman whose own son lived in the family basement amid a fug of smelly concert-tour tees, Skrillex and dishes displaying a radioactive orange patina. “If I was twenty, I’d jump him.” (Yump him!) What his mother saw was a boy wasting away in a kind of spiritual miasma. Before he stopped taking his runs through the cemetery, she offered to join him. He was one of those rare boys who didn’t mind being seen with his mother. “I’m good,” he said, holding out his palm crossing-guard style, his eyes receding taillights on a country road. By the time she went to Sweden, he’d stopped leaving the house altogether. Her husband said, “At least he still showers,” and told her she’d forgotten what it was like to be young and in love. He said this politely but pointedly.
Her son looked so small when she left, barely there, a smudge of ash.
THE YOUNG REDHEADED technical manager at the IKEA warehouse in Uppsala smacked his fist down on a stack of samples and told her, “I am so fucking sick of the veneer marauding as the real thing!” He no doubt meant masquerading—but weren’t they all? They were looking over the specs for a new line of kitchen cabinets and islands—Mjölby—and he must’ve mistaken her for someone half her age. Baring his soul like that, so much worse than if he’d just grabbed her ass. Poor pimply-faced ginger! How horrified he would be if he knew how unattractive she found him and his existential crisis.
The next day, over an irresistible second blini at the Tsarist restaurant near her Helsinki hotel, the boy’s mother thought, yet again, about the burden of love.
Unlike the rest of her family, she’d long housed a fear of death that coloured almost every decision she made. It started at age ten with an untameable terror that her mother would die suddenly, just leave the house one afternoon and never return, having plunged her car into the Glenmore Reservoir, down through the ice—a worry aided by her mother’s occasional threats to do this very thing. Throughout her single years it was her own death she fretted about, a case of health anxiety blossoming into rampant hypochondria. Then, when she fell in love with her future husband, the fear jumped (yumped!) to him. A delayed bedtime call during a business trip would trigger visions of herself in widow’s weeds and have her digging through file boxes in search of her husband’s Sun Life insurance policy.
For almost two decades now it’s slumped—a fat, leering cloud—over the heads of her children. It begat and begat and begat through all the freaking exhausting years of it, the years of Lymphoma scares and untended crosswalks and avalanche alerts and school shootings. Through the years of scrutinizing jars at the food co-op for expiry dates and cans for any dings that might indicate tomato sauce gone rogue. At least twice a day during the boy’s trip to China she’d had to breathe deeply into a paper lunch bag.
She felt melon-balled, her reserves scooped out. And this Katja, this numerically gifted Laplander and prize melancholic, was going to pay.
Outside, it was dark already, although just past one in the afternoon; her brown faux-fur coat shining white in the eternal twilight of the Finnish winter. She felt warm and large and the growl swelling in her throat emerged as a roar. And like that, she pounded her way west to where the city flattened along the zee, one paw smacking down on the sidewalk after the other, the iced pavement splitting beneath her claws. Running now, yowling for blood.
WOULD IT HAVE hurt her to have slept with him? To have taken his cock into her mouth? She liked the way the Canadian boy had watched her while she talked, as if concentrating on reading dialogue bubbles while trying to make out her thought bubbles as well. But he didn’t attract her in that way, so she’d found it more satisfying to act as if life were about so much more.
She hadn’t had a decent conversation with a fellow Canuck in a while, but she’d affected that laughable Finnish accent at the ANZA Club and didn’t want him to think her shallow or mean, so she’d kept it up. It was easy to pretend to be from Finland; nobody knew anything about the place. The death thing, though—that had been real.
The girl, whose name was not Katja, thought about the boy while she fucked her fiancé, the cultural attaché to the British Embassy in Beijing (Call me Katja, she whispered, wanting to hear the name in his jammy vowels). She thought about the boy while she calmed anxious American business travellers in the lobby of the Japanese boutique hotel on Sanlitun where she was interning as a concierge-trainee. She thought about the boy while she bathed in her fiancé’s tub with the exceptional soaps the hotel provided its guests. Then she decided, because she was a practical girl from Oakville who dreamt not in watercolours but crisp Mondrian-like shapes and hues, to not think about him anymore.
Just once, years later, did she think about him again. After her divorce she took her teenaged twins to China for the first time, and they made an expedition to a section of the Great Wall. There was a donkey up on the wall, looking baleful as a group of schoolchildren snapped photos. It could have been a descendant of the donkey that had been there when she visited with the boy, or even the same donkey—she had no idea how long the beasts lived. They’d held cups of steaming tea sold by a vendor who had shiny stumps where his hands should have been.
While they had walked on and over the dead builders whose bones were mortared into the wall’s foundations, she talked about the Great Wall holding off death, the deaths of people who had died thousands of years before; those thousands of years and the thundering Mongol hordes reflected in the donkey’s mild eyes.
While her kids yelled for her to “Come on, Mom!” she looked down through a crenellation and the thought of what it would be like to fall—or jump—never entered her mind.
“Do you understand?” she had asked the boy all those years ago. “Do you?”
TIKO-PEKKA NODDED his head along to the Leningrad Cowboys and sucked back on a joint while reading the mail that had been piling up for someone called Katja H. in Location Data. The mailroom in the basement of Nokia House was a lonely place in the age of email, text messaging and Skype, especially if you were the sole employee of the department. No real room for advancement. It was tough to be a Finn without ambition these days, what with all the composers and conductors and architects and designers they were sending out into the world as ambassadors of cool like so much voikukka fluff. But Tiko-Pekka wasn’t without his own plans.
Until the letters started arriving, Tiko-Pekka got wasted, listened to music and planned out his latest Parkour moves. He was working up to putting on a real show, a jaw-dropper. Up and down the rooftops of the fortress-like headquarters, flying from jutting vent to jutting vent, looping fluidly down the sloped glass wall of the north building, using hands, feet, knees, elbows, and finishing up with a lithe landing on the company helipad that jutted out over the zee.
That’s what he was working up to, anyway. For now, he satisfied himself with the bird-splotched benches and statuary plinths in Thurmanin Park. Even Picasso first had to learn perspective, didn’t he? What galled Tiko-Pekka was that he had to continue to pretend he got home sweat-soaked from having run to catch the tram. The one time he’d tried to explain his Parkour practice to his ma, she’d snapped a wet tea towel hard against the back of his head and told him not to be stupid. Lately she just muttered about how anyone could get sweaty in the wintertime.
Tiko-Pekka had tried—rather diligently, he thought—to find the recipient of the letters and was on the verge of taking some initiative and sending them back to Vancouver, Canada (a placed he hoped to take his Parkour tour one day) when the mishap took place. While rubbing a fleck of hot ash from one of the envelopes, he’d torn a hole through it—Mitä helvettiä?, as his pop used to say—opened it and began to read.
Now Tiko-Pekka was in love. He should’ve been in love with this Katja H., she of the “electrifying fingers” and “toasted marshmallow hair” and “transformative sense of mortality.” But it was the letter writer, James, to whom he lost his heart. James, who felt “clean & light” for the first time in his life; James, who wrote of dead violins and train stations the size of galaxies.
And so it was that down in the bowels of the telecommunications giant, in the enveloping darkness of an early-winter afternoon, Tiko-Pekka didn’t hear the caviar-scented roar that trembled the all-glass north side of the complex, or the smack of the enormous paw that cracked the helipad in two, submerging it in the waters of the bay like a broken biscuit in tea. He was lounging on a garbage barge on a South-China canal, the oarsman a wooden-toothed singer who sang a Mongolian love song while Tiko-Pekka held his hollowed-out lover in the palm of his hand.
The song is simultaneously complex and simple—the Mongol raiders tenderize their meat by placing it under their saddles, and pine for their sweethearts as they ride. The grass has a pewter gleam like grass at dawn in a black-and-white movie. They move over the stiff grass, teeth gleaming, thinking of tender flesh, their sweethearts, the biting cold, as in the distance there rises a spindle of smoke and, beyond it, a great wall.